Text: John 2-4
One barrier that prohibits people from being able to see Jesus as John presents him is religion. I often meet people who describe themselves as recovering Catholics or recovering Baptists. For them, the religion of Christianity has left a bad taste in their mouth. They’ve been hurt. They’ve been let down. They don’t want to hear about Jesus and they definitely don’t want to hear a sales pitch. Sadly, the fact is that religion has killed their faith. The ironic thing is that if Jesus were talking to them, he’d say they are exactly right! Religion does kill faith. It does suck life out of you.
In John chapters 2-4, Jesus has one message, revealed though a series of two miracles, two meetings, and one controversy. These are presented chiastically: miracle, meeting, controversy, meeting, miracle.The message is simply this: I’ve come to replace dead religion; believe in me and you’ll have life. This is an astounding claim which requires examination. Let’s look at the miracles first
Both of these miracles take place in Cana, a small town located about 15 km north of Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth. In the first passage located in John 2:1-11, Jesus’ mother Mary approaches Jesus at a wedding with some startling news – the wine has run out, an embarrassing situation for the host of the festivities.Jesus first tries to gently rebuff Mary, remarking that the “time has not yet come” for him to reveal his divine identity publicly, yet Mary, perhaps knowing her son’s compassionate nature, informs the servants of the host to follow her son’s instructions. Jesus saves the party by turning water into wine – and not just any wine, but the best of the celebration.
John records in verse six with great detail that six stone water jars were on hand. These jars were used in the Jewish rituals of purification. Out of these old jars, representing the ancient religion of the Jews, Jesus produced his new wine. The picture is that Jesus is revitalizing the stale, tepid waters of religion with vibrant, celebratory life. God has “saved the best for last”.
This religious interpretation is supported by John’s insertion of a short episode in which Jesus addresses the center of the Jewish religion, the Temple itself. The Temple was intended to be a place of purification, but over the years it had become soiled with greed. After driving out the moneychangers, the leaders charged him, “Give us a sign to demonstrate that you have the authority to do this.” “Destroy this temple,” Jesus dared, “and I will raise it up again in three days.” Obviously, the Jewish leaders didn’t take him up on that dare, but it was because they had completely missed the point of Jesus’ words. The temple was no longer the center of purification, because Jesus himself was the New Temple, he himself was the new wine he was offering which purifies completely. Yet, we should recognize that Jesus gave them a direct command: destroy this temple. This passage challenges us: would we tear down our temples in order to see Jesus glorified?
In the second story, John 4:46-54, the request is made by an official with an ill son, that Jesus might come down and heal his boy. As in the first story, Jesus at first rebuffs the request – this time because he is weary of everyone demanding a sign of him before they will believe. Again, the person making the request persists and again Jesus ultimately comes through. The point of this story is that life comes by faith in Jesus. The Temple Pharisees were unable to come to faith because their religion had blinded them to the truth. The official, on the other hand, believed Jesus’ word, and then when he saw the sign of his son’s recovery had his faith confirmed. We may think that it was easier for those who lived in Jesus’ time and saw his miracles to believe on him, but in fact many people saw the works that he did and still did not believe. Whether we have witnessed his miracles or not, we are told to believe his Word – as Jesus himself tells Thomas after he was raised from the dead, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed." Taken together, these two miracle stories present the truth that Jesus has come to replace dead religion and that those who believe in him will have life.
In these chapters we find two of the most famous interactions in the book of John; the meeting with Nicodemus in 3:1-21 and the meeting with the Samaritan woman in 4:1-42. Interestingly, these two meetings have many parallels.
Both were scandalous: Nicodemus, the Pharisee, had to secretly meet Jesus under the cover of night to protect his reputation as an esteemed religious leader. Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan women was even more scandalous – Jews had no dealings with the Samaritans, much less Jewish men with Samaritan women.
Both were startled: After engaging in some opening small talk with each, Jesus startles them both with off-the-wall statements, seemingly meant to pique their interest. To the religious leader, Nicodemus, Jesus makes the famous, yet astounding claim that “unless one be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” To the thirsty, despised Samaritan woman, Jesus offers water that will quench her thirst forever and become “a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The both reveal a complete misunderstanding of the spiritual truth Jesus is pointing them to. Born again? Nicodemus scoffs – can a man climb into his mother’s womb a second time? Living water? The woman chuckles – yeah that’d be great, I wouldn’t have to keep coming up here to this well.
Both are rebuked: After Jesus explains that one must be born of the spirit in order to enter the kingdom of God, Nicodemus asks, “How can these things be?” Jesus’ comeback must have smarted; “You’re the teacher of Israel and you don’t understand these things?” You’re a religious teacher Nicodemus! Don’t you understand that external religion kills and has never been able to save? You need to be reborn! You need a new life. What have you been teaching people? Jesus wasn’t as concerned about the woman’s religious ignorance – after all, what could be expected from a Samaritan? But just when she asked him to give her the living water he talked about, he directed her to her own area of shame. “Go get your husband and bring him back here,” he requests. The woman says that she isn’t married. “Oh right,” Jesus says, “you’re not married. You’ve been married five times, but the guy you’re shacking up with now isn’t your husband, so I guess you’re right – you’re not married.” How did he know? Later, when the woman testified to others that she had met Jesus, it was this that stuck out in her heart – “he told me everything I had ever done”. With laser precision, Jesus exposed the hypocrisy of the religious and the shame of the sinner.
Both are stunned: To these two strangers, both from completely different walks of life, Jesus makes two of his most famous pronouncements. To the religious leader, one steeped in tradition and ritualism, Jesus spoke of love and the need for faith. His words are still heralded as the core truth of Christianity:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
This explains how one is born-again, by believing in the Son whom God has sent for our salvation. Empty religion must be replaced by life-giving faith.
To the woman, his stunning answer comes in response to a question she asked, also about religion. The Jews and Samaritans disagreed over which mountain on which God was to be worshipped.
Jesus said to her, "Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father . . . the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth."
Notice that we again find that Jesus is concerned with replacing dead religion with faith. Those who possess this faith are the true worshippers who worship God in spirit and in truth. But who is Jesus to overturn these religious tables?
The woman said to him, "I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things." Jesus said to her, "I who speak to you am he."
This is the clearest statement in any of the Gospels of Jesus’ identity. He is the Messiah, the one whom the Jews were looking for to bring in the kingdom of God. At this, the woman raced back into town and told her people that she had found the Messiah. Initially skeptical, the townspeople invited Jesus to stay with them for a few days. Their testimony is recorded in John 4:41-42:
And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, "It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world."
In both of these meeting we see that Jesus has come to replace dead religion and that those who believe in him will have life.
Confrontation: John or Jesus? (3:22-36)
In this central passage, John summarizes the themes of the entire chapter. Jews come to argue with John the Baptist over purification, reminding us of the water jars at the wedding. People are concerned that more and more people are going over to Jesus to be baptized. Instead of concerning John, this only encourages him – he’s already told them that he is not the Christ, but was sent before the Christ to testify of him. “He must increase, but I must decrease,” John says in full understanding of his role as a best man to a bridegroom. John wasn't trying to set up his own religion - he was trying to point peopmle toward a relationship with Christ. The conclusion to this section is found in John 3:31-36:
He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all. He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony. Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true. For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.
It is essential to John’s argument that we understand three things:
1) Jesus came from God. Since he came from God, he has authority over all things.
2) Jesus speaks God’s words. If you hear Jesus’ words and believe them, then you believe God. If you deny Jesus’ words, then you have denied God.
3) Our faith in Jesus is a life or death proposition. If you believe in him, you are granted eternal life. If you reject him, you have rejected God, and therefore have rejected the eternal life that he offers.
We are not talking about religion. As we have seen, Jesus came to replace dead-religion. We are talking about beginning a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. What’s the difference?
Þ Religion is based on rules and rituals. Relationships are based on intimacy and love.
Þ Religion is externally based. Relationships are internal movements of the heart.
Þ Religion looks to the past. Relationships are built in the present; anticipate the future.
Þ Religion is often a show put on for others. Relationships must be authentic.
Maybe you’ve been a religious Pharisee like Nicodemus. Maybe you’ve been the object of scorn of the religious Pharisees like the woman at the well. Either way, no matter who you are, Jesus offers you eternal life. That’s what we’re talking about here, life, not religion. You can have all the religion you want and miss out on life.